Chessboard

Just about everyone is where they need to be.  Some shuttle diplomacy by Nichole, getting Brunelli, Reilly, and Jenkins back into the fray, and then I can let everything go to hell.  How nice, for me.

Did I mention I’m taking the rest of the year off after this?

“I don’t want to bore you with the details, but yes,” he replied, leaning back onto a bolster, looking at a point far away. “The lead force I sent to provoke them into marshalling their forces did their job… almost too well! They were on the outskirts of Olympia before I ordered them back!”

Nichole sat still with a rapt look, matching his words to the map in her mind.

“Chieftain Brock’s force was taking shells and mortars from their concealed positions in southern Tumwater and the local airport. He fell back in apparent disorder, just as trained. We’d just got ourselves sorted in the woods along the Black River, to the west.”

He held his cup up with his right. A servant stepped forward and added equal amounts tea and wine. He winced a little to change position.

“Great Lord? Your leg…?” Nichole asked.

“I think the painkillers are starting to wear off; no matter: with Brock’s force falling back, the cannibals came boiling out of their positions, some mounted, some with motorbikes, but most on foot…”

She watched as he closed his eyes and laughed.

“We stood still and let them by. When we charged, it was a slaughter!” He drank what was in his cup all at once. Just then the man who’d run out returned. Rhun looked at him.

“Within the hour,” the clerk said, returning to his desk.

“Just in case they were the type to lead from behind, I led my men into Tumwater and the outskirts of Olympia… damn!” His leg again. “Which is where this happened!”

The doctor stood.

“I must change the dressing, Lord.”

“Yes, yes. Nichole?” Rhun asked.

“Great Lord?”

“Rhun.” He smiled through his pain.

“Rhun.”

“After this I must deal with post-battle minutiae and rest… come to me this evening. We must talk more of the change in command of the City forces.”

“Of course, Rhun.” Nichole stood and made for the exit.

“Nichole?” He called after her.

“Yes?”

“Avoid Adam. He’ll find a reason to kill you.”

“A shame!” she said with a smile.

“For you to die, of cou-”

“For such an important man to die for something so trivial! Until later, Rhun!”

With the flap falling behind her she could hear part of his comment: “…must have her!” She saw Adam to her left, talking to three mounted men. She turned right.

I want to ride north and see the battlefield for myself: I’ve too little first-hand experience as to how these people fight! But, as touchy as City people are about women in a combat zone, these would have a conniption!

Instead, she walked up the ramp to the highway overpass, hoping for a better view. She was disappointed that the trees and flat terrain of the valley defeated her. Climbing the rusting hulk of a semi trailer did give her greater height, but she could see nothing to the north.

What I do see is just as interesting: a steady flow of messenger horsemen not just from the north, but in all directions. Logistics and information wins battles, Bakke, not turreted scout cars!

For those that recognized her, up on her perch, from her Lake Missoula story, she returned their waves with a smile.

Is Bakke playing a double game? Why? He implies that the Mayor is behind all this, yet neither Teresa or Mackenzie gave me the slightest scrap about betraying the Nation… She climbed down, careful to not tear her ‘skin’ on the rusted metal. That would provoke unpleasant questions.

Off the road and down the ramp, she skirted their little camp to get to the trees to the southeast, holding the half-empty City battery in her right hand inside her jacket pocket. To the few that seemed curious as to what she was doing, Nichole tossed her head at the trees while making a pretend tugging motion on her pants. They got that.

It helped she discovered a small creek just past the trees. After making a few circles to ensure she’d not been followed, she pulled down her pants and squatted. At the same time she pulled the plug up from under her shirt and jacket into the back of her neck. The other end went into the battery.

It would be better if I was sitting, but appearances must be kept up if someone comes this way!

In ninety minutes the battery was drained and her need to speak with Rhun that much more pressing: was the second group coming into the valley now? The plug out of her neck, she stood and pulled up her pants, moving directly to the command yurt.

Unlike all other times, there were two men stationed outside. One held out his hand, palm up.

“Wait, please,” he said, before ducking inside.

She looked her concern to the other, but he refused to meet her eyes. What is going on?

The first guard, followed by Chieftain Adam, came back out.

“He is tired and needs rest,” Adam said in a tone of hate.

“I agree. He also needs information and to issue orders, right now, before things fall apart,” she narrowed her eyes at him, “for all of us!”

“Leave him be, witch!” He hissed. “We know who’s side you’re on!”

Nichole took one step closer to him, putting her left index finger onto his chest.

“You…” she let her finger trace all the way down to his homespun trousers, “little man, have no idea who’s side I am on! Let me pass!”

Aware of his loss of face, he was about to raise his hand when they heard the voice from inside.

“Nichole…?”

“It seems you will live!” she spat at him, entering the yurt.

She crossed quickly to her place across from Rhun. Although he seemed cheerful – painkillers – his condition was worse. She addressed the doctor to her right.

“Antibiotics?”

“Oral amoxicillin is all we have.”

She turned to one of the clerks behind her left.

“Paper and pen. Now.”

They handed it to her. She was intrigued that Rhun had yet to speak. She wrote her order and passed it back.

“Top speed and top priority. To the City forces. I have demanded addition medications without saying who or why.”

The man took the paper and ran out. She heard Rhun chuckle.

“You do love me!”

“I love what you represent: stability and sanity for the Nation. General Tessmer is already incapacitated. Were you to be also…”

She cast her head down before looking sharply up under her brows.

“Then there will be a bloodbath.”

She watched the Great Lord lower his eyes. He’s tired.

“You must rest,” she tried something new, “friend Rhun. Allow me to quickly tell you of my thoughts about the City forces. But first: have you really defeated the cannibals?”

She saw him look past her at the remaining clerk.

“Patrols in the southern fringes of Tacoma. Killing all on sight. Little to no resistance.” The man said.

“You’ve seen my cards, Nichole…” Rhun said with a sigh.

“Bakke seeks to isolate the second group: your women and children, and renegotiate.”

How odd that the temperature in the yurt could drop like that! Even her sensors confirmed it. The human mind was capable of miracles.

“Nichole,” Rhun asked with great care, “are you trying to start a war?”

“No, Rhun,” knowing her full bow made him uncomfortable, she dropped her head halfway to her hands. “I’m trying to stop one.”

“Robert?” Rhun addressed the clerk. “Tell Markus to continue his probe north with his brigade; withdraw for any serious resistance. Otherwise, I want all of our men ready to move south in twelve hours.”

“Sir?” the man named Robert questioned. “After our victory over the flesh-eaters units are dispersed, entangled – ”

“We’re moving south just before dawn. Proclaim it!”

“Sir.” Now he stood and ran out. Nichole and Rhun heard the sigh from the doctor.

A minute passed.

“Should I offer you food?” Rhun asked.

“No. Thank you.”

The clerk she’d given her message too came back in with news.

“The City men, Brunelli and Reilly, are a few miles north of here. I took the liberty to order them back here.”

“Very good; return to your post,” Rhun said, once again closing his eyes and leaning back.

A chieftain she did not know came quickly in and directly to Rhun. With a glance at her, he cupped his hand and whispered into his lord’s ear, who’s eyes betrayed nothing. The man left as quickly as he entered. He stared past her before bringing his eyes to hers.

“Against our agreement, the second group has been diverted at Morton, to follow the US twelve route. At the same time, the City forces have moved east, effectively pinning them in Silver Creek against Mayfield Lake.”

He let his eyes drift up for a moment.

“Bakke seeks our families as hostages.”

Rhun’s eyes came back down to hers.

“This will not stand. I cannot order you, only ask: ride now for their position. Find out…” Now he clenched his eyes shut. “Find out what the hell is going on, and try to put a stop to all this before our forces touch!”

Nichole stood and was gone.

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